This blog is long overdue (as indeed are many) but I understand that the City of Edinburgh Council’s Audit Committee will shortly be considering a report into the Parliament House fiasco. It is therefore appropriate to publish this second update on the affair. The original story is here and Update 1 is here).

In summary, Parliament Hall forms part of the common good of the City of Edinburgh but, through a series of apparent blunders, title was granted to Scottish Ministers in 2005 (see the original story for full background). In 2010, Fergus Ewing, Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism signed the Transfer of Property etc. (Scottish Court Service) Order which vests the property in the hands of the Scottish Courts Service.

On 19 February 2015, four days after the story broke, Alison Johnstone MSP asked the First Minister whether the Scottish Government would co-operate in resolving the matter (see above video clip and Official report pg 16 here). Alison Johnstone then wrote to the Scottish Government and received a reply. At the same time a Freedom of Information request revealed other elements of the story. These are outlined in what follows.

Alex Neil Letter

On 9 March, Cabinet Secretary Alex Neil wrote to Alison Johnstone and outlined how, in the view of the Scottish Ministers, Parliament House (or Parliament Hall as it is called in the letter) came to be regarded as being in their ownership. It appears that Scottish Ministers are relying on the Commissioners of Works Act 1852 which, in Section 4, vested all the courts and buildings of the Courts of Session and Justiciary in the ownership of the Commissioners of Works. Since Scottish Ministers are the statutory successors to the Commissioners, the argument goes, so Scottish Ministers were entitled to seek to obtain a Land Register title from the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland.

I do not find this a credible explanation. Acts of this sort are passed by Parliament to transfer the ownership of property from one public body to another. The 2010 Order mentioned above is a contemporary example of such legislation. Such Acts cannot lawfully transfer land or property owned by third parties (which includes land owned by local authorities such as the Royal Burgh and Corporation of Edinburgh.

As noted in the original blog, Parliament House is a building about which much is known. The City accounts of 1875-76 place on record the Council’s ownership of the building. A comprehensive report of 1895 on the Municipal Buildings of the City does the same. And the comprehensive asset survey by the Town Clerk and City Chamberlain in 1905 (Report of the Common Good of the City of Edinburgh by Hunter & Paton) re-iterates the Council’s ownership.

It is inconceivable that theses officers of the Corporation could be recording the ownership of this building in 1875, 1905 and 1925 if, as argued by Scottish Ministers today, ownership of the property had been transferred by an Act of Parliament in 1852. Had the 1852 Act transferred ownership, the Council would know all about it. But the Act did not do this because such Acts cannot ( in the absence of a court order or other legal means of acquisition) transfer the ownership of property that is not already in the ownership of a public body accountable to Parliament.

Scottish Government Correspondence

In information released as part of a Freedom of Information request to Scottish Ministers (6,2Mb pdf here), it is evident that the Council had made contact with Scottish Ministers as far back as February 2014. Further internal correspondence relates to media enquiries made in February 2015 by Gina Davidson from the Evening News who worked on the story with me.

City of Edinburgh Council

The Council appears to have made contact with Scottish Ministers as far back as 6 June 2014 in a letter outlining its concerns (see here).

The fatal letter that was written on 9 May 2006 by the City of Edinburgh Council to the Scottish Government declaiming any interest in Parliament Hall has also come to light – extract below (full pdf here)

 Faculty of Advocates

Finally, I have obtained a fax from the Faculty of Advocates dated 19 June 1997 that claims that the Laigh Hall (which used to store the Maiden, the gallows and the City lamps) had come into the ownership of the Faculty from the Town in exchange for properties to the north of the Signet Library. There is no evidence that this claim has any foundation in fact.

To Conclude

Whether the City of Edinburgh Council will be able to recover ownership of Parliament Hall is yet to be determined. The most interesting revelation from the above is the assertion by Scottish Ministers that the 1852 Act was the basis upon which they proceeded to assert their title. I think this view is flawed.

The City of Edinburgh Council’s Audit Committee meets on 18 June.

Image: Commission on Local Tax Reform. Oral Evidence Session 2

Today, the Commission on Local Tax Reform held its second oral evidence session. I am  member of the Commission representing the Scottish Green Party. The event was streamed live and you can view the whole proceedings here together with the slides used by Stuart Adam of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. In addition to Stuart’s evidence, we heard from Professor John Baillie – a member of the Local Government Finance Review Committee (chaired by Sir Peter Burt), and  the immediate past Chair of the Audit Commission and of Audit Scotland. We also heard evidence from Ken McKay who was Head of Local Government Finance in the Scottish Office between 1989 and 1997 and was the advisor to the Burt Committee.

The Committee was established in 2004. Its remit was:

To review the different forms of local taxation, including reform of the Council Tax, against criteria set by the Executive, to identify the pros and cons of implementing any changes to the local taxation system in Scotland, including the practicalities and the implications for the rest of the local government finance system and any wider economic impact, and to make recommendations.”

The Committee published its final report on 9 November 2006 (news report here).

The current Commission is keen to learn from the experience of Sir Peter Burt’s Committee and so invited Professor Baillie and Ken Mackay. You can watch the whole session and download the slide presentation here.

I relate the following exchange in order to highlight the potential political difficulties that might lie ahead and to alert interested parties to the vital need to achieve a degree of political consensus on the findings of the Commission. The exchange speaks for itself as to the challenges of making progress in this area of public policy.

After the Chair had opened question of the witnesses , I asked why Burt had died a death before it was even published. Here is the exchange at 52 minutes and 10 seconds into the session.

Andy Wightman

I’ve got quite a few questions on the technical detail of all of this  but first of all, Ken and John, perhaps on the politics of all of this because this appears to be where Burt stumbled and where possibly the biggest challenges facing this Commission are. Why did Burt die a death before it was even published?

John Baillie

We submitted our report and we actually gave an advance copy as you would expect out of courtesy to the First Minister among others. And we heard the day before we were publishing and having our press conference that it had been dismissed. I to this day do not know why and I think the easiest way to find out the justification for that wholesale rejection is possibly to invite those who rejected it. I can speculate but it’s worthless.”

Ken Mackay

I have no …. I was inside the Scottish Office at one time and I have no idea .. and I have tried .. I have seen Jack McConnell on the golf course and I’ve often wanted to ask him .. because the Burt Committee  .. well I’d better be .. I better bite my tongue a bit because there’s politics in this especially now but they were treated appallingly. They did a very, very good piece of work and it was rubbished the day before it was published.”

The Commission is currently undertaking a public consultation. Further details here.

Scottish Land and Estates, the organisation that represents some landowners in Scotland, attracted a fair bit of press coverage last month for their claim that potential reforms to Scotland’s agricultural tenancy laws could leave the Scottish Government open to compensation claims of £600 million (see Telegraph, Press & Journal, Herald). (1)

The claim was made in written evidence to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee on 25 March 2015. The £600 million figure was derived from a study undertaken for SLE by estate agents Smiths Gore which purports to calculate the potential loss faced by landowners were reforms to be enacted.

The heart of the matter, however, is not the quantum of any possible claim. Compensation would only be relevant if there is a breach of the rights to property enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 1 of Protocol 1). Moreover, such rights are not the only human rights that come into play when the Scottish Parliament enacts legislation.

As Professor Alan Miller, Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, noted in evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee on 3 December 2014,

I am struck by how narrowly framed the debate has been. I am a little embarrassed that the way in which human rights has been interpreted is contributing to there being quite narrow parameters around debate about land reform and community empowerment..” (2)

Professor Miller expanded on this point at a very well-attended Scottish Parliamentary meeting was last week hosted by Michael Russell MSP on the topic of land reform and human rights. In attendance were several MSPs, a Government Minister and more than six civil servants including one from the Crown Office.

The meeting was addressed by David Cameron from Community Land Scotland and Professor Miller. In their presentations and in the discussion that followed, it was evident that convention rights of the sort being deployed by SLE are only part of a much wider spectrum of human rights that Scottish Ministers and the Scottish Parliament have to balance in framing legislation. Section 7(2)(a) of the Scotland Act 1998 obliges the Parliament to observe and implement all international obligations including a wide range of human rights that are not covered by the ECHR such as the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

This perspective is diligently and authoritatively explained in a paper by Dr Kirsteen Shields from Dundee University’s School of Law published in the current edition of the Scottish Human Rights Journal entitled “Tackling the Misuse of Rights Rhetoric in Land Reform Debate”. (download available here) All with an interest in the topic and, in particular, MSPs, would be well advised to read this carefully.

None of these arguments will be new to anyone with any experience of international development where, since 1997, the rights-based approach has been adopted not only by the UN but by Governments and NGOs around the world.

Indeed the UK Government is an enthusiastic advocate of such an approach in its overseas aid programme. The Scottish Government is also bound by the terms of the Scotland Act to do all in its power to further the realisation of international human rights obligations.

The claims by SLE that landowners could be entitled to £600m of compensation is predicated on there being a breach of ECHR. Crucially, SLE has not published the legal advice upon which the £600m claim is based. During the Parliamentary meeting, I called for the organisation to do so and share this with MSPs. I await developments with interest since only by understanding the legal basis upon which any claim rests, can we judge whether any financial consequences might flow. Moreover, as the above paper makes clear, there is more to human rights than the ECHR.

All of which led Cabinet Secretary, Richard Lochhead, to dismiss such claims at the Rural Affairs meeting on 1 April 2015. In response to suggestions that compensation claims might be as high as £1.78 billion, he said,

First, the cabinet secretary is too broke to afford £600 million, let alone £1.78 billion. It would be more constructive and helpful in moving the debate forward if we had fewer silly reports such as that. SLE’s intervention and the figures in its report – which came when we are supposed to be saying that there is unprecedented collaboration and understanding of some of the key issues facing tenant farming – were unconstructive and unhelpful. It escapes me how those figures were arrived at. Given that we have not even published the legislation yet, there is no way for those with a strong view on one side of the debate even remotely to begin to work out any potential figures.”

Now that Parliament has been made aware of the wider human rights context in which it is, by law, required to work, it is to be hoped that such speculative and outlandish claims can be put to rest.

NOTES

(1) SLE is the representative body of 1351 landowners in Scotland who own 29% of Scotland.

(2) A fuller extract of his evidence..

I am struck by how narrowly framed the debate has been. I am a little embarrassed that the way in which human rights has been interpreted is contributing to there being quite narrow parameters around debate about land reform and community empowerment. I will just make a couple of points about the perception of human rights and its relevance to the committee’s consideration of the bill, because I am sure that others have more value to add.

The language that is being used – I heard the term “absolute right to buy” being used again this morning –  is very unhelpful, although I understand why people are using it. The European convention on human rights is not understood as providing a framework in which the legitimate rights of landowners and the public interest are reconciled and a balance is struck, with compensation being paid to the landowner if necessary. The right to buy is a qualified right: there has to be a competing public interest to override the right to peaceful enjoyment by the person who owns the land. Therefore, language such as “right to buy” or “absolute right” polarises the debate in an unhelpful way and does not reflect a clear understanding of what the ECHR contributes to the debate.

The bigger frustration that I have with the policy framework is this: human rights does not begin and end at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg; there is a much broader framework of international human rights that are relevant to the Government and the Parliament, but which are largely invisible.

The Scotland Act 1998 calls on the Scottish ministers to observe and implement international obligations, of which one—but only one—is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which places a duty on the Scottish ministers to use the maximum available resources to ensure progressive realisation of the right to housing, employment, food and so on—that is, it sees land as a national asset, which is to be used for the progressive realisation of what we might call sustainable development.

Therefore, what human rights provides is a broader impetus for land reform, rather than an inhibition, as is suggested in the way that the issue is currently couched—that is, in questions about whether a landowner has a red card that can be used with reference to the ECHR to stifle discussion about different use of the land. That is what is missing from the policy framework.”